Friday, April 5, 2019

Symphonic Birding

We did some Beethovenian bird watching yesterday.

Beethoven is not particularly known for his programmatic music. When he did write a piece of story-driven battle music, "Wellington's Victory," it made him enormously popular for a while, but it is regarded today as one of his most embarrassing compositions.

He did, however, concoct a program for one of the nine symphonies. It is concise--in fact, it is downright terse if you compare it to the flowery, verbose plan of musical action left behind by the Swabian composer Hienrich Knecht, whose  "pastorale" symphony seems to have provided the inspiration for Beethoven's own. Sir George Grove speculated that Beethoven, seeing the advertisements for that symphony on the backs of Beethoven's own early piano sonatas from his Viennese publisher, thought he could do it better. And he did.

Beethoven's plan also evokes the natural world, an idyllic world of shepherds and babbling brooks, with a storm and a hymn of rejoicing at the end. What is interesting is how this unique foray into narrative-fueled music changed the way he wrote music.

On one hand, it didn't. Beethoven was working on his fifth symphony at the same time, and at yesterday's lecture I illustrated what would happen if you took the first four notes from the sixth and made the same dramatic, dialogical treatment with that motif, trying to turn the sixth into the fifth. It didn't really work, which illustrates the difference in materials. Yet Beethoven still pauses the symphony after only a few measures to set off the motif from what he will do with it. The first movement is still in sonata form, it still involves ubiquitous repetition of the motif, he still builds intensely dramatic climaxes by piling those fragments atop one another, exploring harmonies outside the key in the development section, suddenly veering from one tonality to another merely by changing a single note. Even the recapitulation features a slight digression before he gets into its heart, though this time it is not a oboe solo.

On the other hand, those motific fragments often float on repeated patterns that evoke running rivers or rolling meadows. Sometimes those motifs disappear altogether, and we have motion without melody, repetitively rising and falling, multiple measures of simple crescendo where only the dynamic is making the piece move. It is an early exercise in minimalism.

The birds are there, too. They are not merely reserved for that celebrated spot at the end of the Scene by the Brook where Beethoven stops the music and lets three woodwinds twitter away. They are everywhere, but because they are so seamlessly integrated into the symphonic fabric, we might not notice them. It only takes a couple of notes to suggest a bird call, and Beethoven need not labor the point, especially when he has such a wealth of material to develop. A measure here, a measure there, and he has made us aware of their presence without stopping the music, or veering from his musical materials. In fact, it is in the process of developing them that the birds arrive, so naturally, so integrally, that it is no embarrassment to any symphonist to evoke. And we can listen responsibly, hearing but not disturbing, noticing without getting off the path and damaging the undergrowth or disturbing the wildlife.

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